Today there will be a visible show of the huge opposition in the Far North to the imposition of Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) spanning almost 300,000 hectares of the district.
Estimates of the numbers of those set to converge on Far North District Council's head office in Kaikohe at lunchtime have ranged from 1000 to 5000 people.
Ahead of the protest, the council paused the introduction of the SNA project. Mayor John Carter has had fellow mayors from around the country calling, knowing they could face a similar backlash as the new ecological protections unfold nationwide.
Carter appeared to admit the council had got its approach wrong, telling Local Democracy reporter Susan Botting this week: "Far North District council did all that was required of us. But in hindsight, there may have been a better way to proceed."
It's been a wild ride to this point. Ahead of the public show of opposition today, Botting details what you need to know about SNAs.
What are SNAs?
SNA stands for Significant Natural Area. It is used to mark out places with the important remnants of native habitat where rare or threatened plants or animals (kiwi, native bats and the Northland green gecko) can still be found, or wetlands, places with coastal vegetation, or lakes and rivers with a high ecological value because of plants and habitats that may be endangered.
Why are SNAs happening in the Far North?
To an extent, and under another name, SNAs have existed since 1991 when the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991 required councils to bring in controls to protect native flora and fauna. Then in 2016 the Northland Regional Council gave more direction on meeting RMA requirements. FNDC says this is also why it has to map significant natural areas.
That seems clear. Is it?
Not quite. Many landowners and councils don't know which areas are significant, and even if they do, there's no legal clarity on what "protection" means. Then there's the scale of it, which surprised many. SNAs cover 42 per cent of Far North land, taking areas needing protection from about 210,000 hectares to 282,696ha, partly because of habitat expansion and partly because of better mapping. When FNDC sent 8000 letters early last month seeking discussions with ratepayers about possible SNAs on their land, the news came as a shock to many. However, in 1996 FNDC mapped what were then called "Protected Natural Areas", finding they covered about 30 per cent of the Far North.
How much of an impact will this have?
Across the Far North, 10,748 properties have been identified with potential SNAs. About 2000 properties have more than 80 per cent of their land earmarked for SNAs. About 300 properties will have 100 per cent SNA coverage. About 58 per cent of SNAs are on private land (163,964ha). Public land makes up the remainder (118,732ha, or 42 per cent).
What does an SNA mean for landowners?
It depends. The council has said SNAs will make no difference to current grazing, tourism or honey production. That changes with land use changes or intensification, which would need a resource consent addressing protection of biodiversity - which more or less already happens, depending on what's being done. Intensification and new activities won't be allowed to negatively affect SNAs. It also poses issues for planting exotic vegetation, plantation forestry, woodlots or shelter belts in an SNA. Also, any indigenous vegetation planting must be appropriate for the area.
Who is making all the noise?
Reaction has been particularly strong from Māori. About 17 per cent, or 115,975ha, of the Far North is Māori land. More than half of this land - 60,306ha or 52 per cent of Māori freehold land - is mapped as SNAs. Māori landowners label SNAs as a modern-day land grab. Farmers have also been outspoken, saying it interferes with their ability to farm and imposes rules by others who do not understand farming. There is also concern over the cost and responsibility of protecting SNAs on their land.
Councils are concerned about the cost of managing the new regime without increasing costs to ratepayers. And there may be a national political cost, with the National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity lined up to standardise approaches across the country.
Associate Environment Minister James Shaw is an advocate but Kaitaia-based Te Tai Tokerau MP and Minister for Māori Crown relations Kelvin Davis has spoken for Māori critical of the consultation process.